KINSHASA — Aid agencies are calling for a key airport in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo to be reopened as soon as possible. The airport at Goma was shut down by fighting two weeks ago but a United Nations official suggests it could now be reopened if the security arrangements are kept simple.
Having no working airport would be serious for any city of nearly a million people. For a city with 140,000 displaced people living around it and ongoing military activity the closure could cost lives if vital supplies cannot be flown in quickly.
Most aid to Goma comes by road and the borders are still open, but some medical and food supplies have to come by air. United Nations agencies have appealed to the M23 rebels controlling Goma to let aid flights land there.
"We have had formal discussions with M23 to ask them to let the airport open," explained Barbara Shenstone, who heads the DRC office of OCHA, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "The airport is important for vital medical supplies, and to be able to bring people in and out."
Shenstone told VOA that the M23 said it was willing to open the airport and was in discussions with the U.N. stabilization mission MONUSCO over how this would work. MONUSCO still has troops at the airport, who blocked M23's attempts to capture it.
But talks at the regional level in Uganda's capital appear to be causing delays. A regional proposal is on the table to station a mixed force at Goma airport consisting of contingents from M23, the Congolese army and a neutral country.
"I think it's got slightly complicated by the agreement that was reached in Kampala where there were different arrangements proposed for the airport and the possibility of a small international force. That has kind of stalled the opening of the airport," she said.
Aid workers restarted food distributions to displaced people in and around Goma this week. Some 81,000 out of an estimated 140,000 displaced people in the area received food rations for three days, and regular blanket distributions are planned.
The U.N. humanitarian office says the rations are tailored to immediate needs, as many people may soon go home to their villages, where harvesting should now be taking place.
In the past, rebel movements in Congo's North Kivu province have ordered displaced people to go home. Shenstone said the U.N. would advise against any such policy.
"It's true that the M23 generally doesn't think that camps are a good idea, and they may have ideas about this. But as the humanitarian community we would discourage them from any attempt to forcibly move people. It's not right. You could be forcing people into further distress or danger. The whole idea of forcible returns is just a very bad one," she said.
Aid workers have been under pressure in Congo. After the fall of Goma, international aid workers were targeted by protesters and rioters in several cities. In one city, Bunia, expatriates were chased out of their houses, had their homes looted and their cars wrecked.
But the head of OCHA in DRC says these outbreaks of violence should be put in perspective.
"Humanitarians in eastern Congo are often in danger. In North Kivu in the last six months there have been 162 incidents recorded where non-governmental organizations [NGOs] were attacked on the road or had their goods stolen. Has there been an upsurge of this in the last two weeks? No. The real immediate danger NGOs face is being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the same danger the population faces," said Shenstone.
The humanitarian appeal for DRC for 2012 was for $791 million and with the year nearly over that appeal is only 60 percent funded. Shenstone told VOA that the country is in a state of chronic crisis but she said it doesn't have the same weight with donors as other conflagrations such as Syria or Afghanistan, or the same strategic interest.
While a truce appears to be holding for the moment, the OCHA head of office in Congo predicts that violence will continue to flare up unless the country's deep, underlying problems are addressed.